A Historical Blog Exploring the Myths and Legends of the Golden Age of Piracy
‘I ran to the colour lines, handed down their cursed black flag, and chucked it overboard…’-Jim Hawkins, Treasure Island (1883)
Despite the countless piratical tropes that have arisen from popular culture in the last few centuries, it cannot be countermanded that the pirate flag has emerged as the most iconic. Casting aside the parrots, peg-legs and hooks, the symbol of the ‘death’s head’ above a pair of crossed bones has become synonymous with piracy itself. At the height of the Golden Age of Piracy, a fraternity of over 2,500 men pledged allegiance to the so-called Pirate Republic, and the black and red banners of piracy symbolised a sort of identification among the various crews. Despite this, pirate flags also played a vital role in pirate tactics, as well as glorifying the captains’ own vanity as we will discuss shortly. The ‘Jolly Roger’ would only see action during hunts, as pirates often flew banners of specific nations when chasing prey. The term ‘Jolly Roger’ is believed to have derived from ‘Old Roger’, an old English nickname for the devil. On the contrary, many are of the mindset that the term actually originates from the French ‘joli rogue’, meaning ‘pretty red’, as the vast majority of early Golden Age crews in the Indian Ocean preferred the blood-red banners in leu of yet iconic black.
While the precise origins of the ‘death’s head’ remains a mystery, several authors have propositioned various theories. Marcus Rediker attests that the banner itself echoed the pirates’ own consciousness. This being, it is known that many pirates previously served in the merchant and military navies and were thus well aware of the harsh reality of life at sea, in addition to the abhorrent treatment they suffered by the hands of tyrannical captains. Thus, if a sailor was to perish for whatever reason aboard a contemporary vessel, be it from battle or sickness, the captain or ship’s surgeon would often mark a miniature skull next to said sailor’s name in the logbook. Within this interpretation, pirates seized a motif of their oppressors, and utilised it on their own banners, manifesting the skull and crossbones as a symbol of revenge against an oppressive establishment. Nevertheless, the primary aim of the skull and crossbones was to instil as much fear into the hearts of potential prey, yet this was not the only symbol that adorned pirate colours. Unbeknownst to many, pirate banners were in reality superbly diverse, with captains utilising their own ensigns to better suite individual tactics. Not only can one identify the skull and crossbones, one may observe hourglasses, spears, skeletons, and goblets among an assortment of many other items.
Despite being a simple piece of waving cloth, the Jolly Roger was an uncompromising component of pirate battle tactics. For instance, say if a pirate was stalking a French vessel, the pirates would raise a French ensign as a mark of identification, hoping to lower their enemy’s guard. When close enough, the Jolly Roger would be hoisted up, signifying the chasers’ true intentions. This was the pinnacle moment, and to paraphrase Captain Flint himself, if pirates raised the black flag too early, they would incite panic and the target may run, but raise it too late, and it will inspire fear and a greater chance of resistance. In addition, sometimes a shot may be fired across the enemy’s bow. Indeed, multiple merchant captains lamented that whilst being chased by pirates, up would go the ‘Pirate Colours, at sight whereof our men will defend their ship no longer.’ Evidently, when a gang of pirates chased the ship Eagle sometime during the Golden Age, the crew of the Eagle were ‘so much terrifyed’ that ‘no men not only refused to fight themselves but also hindered the officers’. It appears as in this case, the black banner served its purpose of inspiring sheer terror, as the men turned on their own officers and risked mutiny rather than face the pirates’ wrath.
Let us examine a few of the patterns and identify what exactly these symbols may represent.
I believe it is only right to first examine the banner of the so-called ‘King of Pirates’, Henry Avery, who reportedly flew a number of banners during his illustrious career. Avery’s banner incorporates the standard Jolly Roger motif albeit with a few notable alterations. Instead of facing forward, the skull looks to the right and bears a bandana and a large earring. In nautical superstition, sailors and pirates alike wore earrings not necessarily as a fashion accessory or to denote status, but instead the explanation is a tad macabre in nature. In some circles, if the sailor was to die at sea, the gold accessory would be taken by their comrades and used to either pay for their funeral arrangements, or to send it back to their families if applicable.
While this next flag is attributed to Blackbeard, it is a probability that this banner is purely a work of fiction, although we cannot know for certain. The incarnation of the Death’s Head incorporates the skeleton of a devil, or perhaps the devil himself, stabbing a pleading heart with a spear. The object in the skeleton’s right hand remains a topic of discussion, although there are two possibilities to what the item in question might be. Firstly, some believe that the item is an hourglass, which symbolises that the target had a certain amount of time to surrender before no quarter was to be given, nautical speak for ‘no mercy’. As you can see on the flag guide, several other pirate captains made use of the hourglass symbol, including John Quelch, whose flag bears a striking resemblance to Blackbeard’s, in addition to the banners of Emanuel Wynne, Walter Kennedy and Christopher Moody.
On the other hand, others believe that the item is a chalice, and that the devil, and thereby Blackbeard himself, is toasting to the victim’s damnation. This would be in keeping with Blackbeard’s theatrical nature, as on the day of his death, Lt. Maynard attested that Captain Thatch ‘drank damnation to me and my men, whom he stil’d cowardly puppies, saying, he would neither give nor take quarter.’ However, despite the uniqueness of this flag, it is evidently not an 18th century design. Indeed, the true origins of the banner dates back to a 1912 article of the Mariner’s Mirror, and the images thereon do not corporate with 18th century designs. Point of fact, it was only attributed to Blackbeard much later. A 1718 newspaper article reporting one of Blackbeard’s raids harbours the only known contemporary account of what Thatch’s flag may have looked like: “…a large Ship and Sloop with Black Flags and Deaths Heads in them and three more Sloops with Bloody Flags all bore down upon the said ship Protestant Caesar…the Ship had 40 Guns and 300 Men called the Queen Anne’s Revenge.’ Hence, it is likely that in actuality, Blackbeard flew standard black flags adorned with a skull, or the bloody red flags used by his predecessors.
Next in line is the banner of Captain John Rackham, who roved the Bahamas in defiance of Woodes Rogers’ royal pardon in 1718. Though not nearly as successful as some of the other Golden Age captains, Rackham is best remembered for two reasons. The first is his involvement with female pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read, who we discussed in the third edition of Pirate Legends. The second being his flag, and the impact it has inflicted upon the popular perception of piracy. Rackham’s banner incorporates the classic Death’s head design, while changing the traditional crossbones for a pair of cutlasses. Rackham, also known as ‘Calico Jack’, due to the fashionable calico clothing he frequented, clearly had a love for the dramatic, and this is shown evidently in his flag. Indeed, in the final episode of Black Sails (2014-2017) Jack lamented that ‘what’s it all for if it goes unremembered? It’s the art that leaves the mark, but to leave it, it must transcend. It must speak for itself. It must be true.’ Though this statement is entirely fictious, it accounts perfectly for Rackham’s flag, and perhaps the history of the Jolly Roger itself.
Finally, let us take into consideration the flags of Bartholomew ‘Black Bart’ Roberts, a fellow Welshman and known in Wales as ‘Barti Ddu.’ In life, Roberts was known as a flamboyant and sharply dressed pirate captain, though he was inherently cruel and committed many atrocities despite his highly successful pirating career. It is said that in times of action, Roberts would don himself in crimson regalia, coupled with an ostrich-plumed tricorn and a magnificent gold chain decorated with a cross adorned with green emeralds. In consequence, his French enemies labelled him as ‘l’homme en rogue’ or, ‘the man in red.’ Evidently, Black Bart’s first flag is rather vain in nature, as it depicts himself and a skeleton (likely an embodiment of Death) sharing a toast.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, the dreaded black and red banners of piracy would inspire fear of death and a promise of violence. From the 20th century however, for lack of a better phrase, the Death’s Head has fallen from grace. Indeed, pirate flags are now used as bunting for children’s birthday parties. The Jolly Roger, while maintaining its legendary status, and devolved into a staple of popular culture above all else, while genuine historical agency has been somewhat cast aside, laid bare by the many fictional flags that are now considered by many as authentic. Once the Jolly Roger was cursed by captains and feared by kings, yet now it has best remembered with fondness is inherently recognisable, which is arguably the wrong reasons. Above all, the Jolly Roger personified one thing only… terror.
Luke Walters is a PhD Student at the University of Reading, specialising in Early Modern maritime history. Catch up on the rest of the Pirate Legends Series by scrolling back through our blog!
Breverton, Terry. Welsh Pirates and Privateers. Llanrwst, 2018.
Cordingly, David. Under the Black Flag. New York, 2016.
Little, Benerson. The Sea Rover’s Practice. Potomac, 2005.
Rankin, Hugh. The Pirates of Colonial North Carolina. Raleigh, NC, 1965.
Rediker, Marcus. Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. Cambridge, 2010.
Rediker, Marcus. Villains of All Nations. Croydon, 2012.
Rennie, Neil. Treasure Neverland. Oxford, 2013.
Woodard, Colin. The Republic of Pirates. London, 2016.